Elevator operators once implicated labor activists in mysterious explosions

Evevator test003

A 1920 Department of Agriculture experiment showing that accumulations of grain dust would ignite under the right conditions

Story by Kristen Cart

Elevator fires have been a great concern since the days when Charles H. Tillotson first built wooden elevators with his army of carpenters at the beginning of what would become the family business.

When elevators started to randomly ignite and explode in the early twentieth century, suspicions ran rampant.

Shortly after 1900, labor violence was on the rise, and businesses had reason to be worried.

In the Midwest, elevator owners suspected the labor unionist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, had committed acts of sabotage, torching the structures to make their anarchistic point.

Evevator test004

Then, cooler heads prevailed as engineers found a scientific explanation.

Using a scale model in the manner of a college lab experiment, the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrated that grain dust would ignite and explode under the right conditions, leaving destruction and injury in its wake.

The Wobblies were off the hook.